Learning and Re-Learning Our U.S. History with Isabel Wilkerson’s "Caste"

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[co-author: Courtney Paul]

Have you read Caste? Partnership With Children featured the book’s author Isabel Wilkerson at the organization’s inaugural Women’s Leadership Breakfast on March 9. Proskauer was proud to be among the event underwriters, a collaboration made possible through the Firm’s corporate social responsibility program.

As part of Proskauer’s Women’s History Month celebration, colleagues in the Proskauer Women’s Alliance and the Black Lawyers Affinity Group, among others from Proskauer, had the chance to attend this remarkable event and hear insights from Isabel Wilkerson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Humanities Medal, and author of the critically acclaimed New York Times bestsellers The Warmth of Other Suns and Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.

“As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance. The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it and which do not.”

–Isabel Wilkerson, Caste

Proskauer diversity and inclusion manager Courtney Paul and litigation associate Lucy Wolf attended the event and reflected together on the significance of Isabel Wilkerson’s talk:

Courtney: It was affirming to hear Isabel Wilkerson emphasize how important it is for Americans to get on the same page about United States history if we are to repair what racism has done to us as a society and as individuals. In elementary through high school, history lessons seemed very disconnected from the present, due to the way they were taught – in discrete segments, chapters in a social studies textbook, with little explanation of how each piece connected to the present. Through my career and professional studies, I have learned that the present is simply an extension of the past, curated and shaped by persisting policies, norms, societal attitudes, and cultural phenomena. Wilkerson spoke to this through her metaphor comparing the U.S. to an inherited home in need of repair.

Lucy: Wilkerson elaborated, “If I moved into an old house and noticed the roof started leaking, I would never say, ‘I didn’t install the roof so I’m not responsible for the leak.’ Instead, we would go about fixing the leak.” Wilkerson explained that this is the same for our generation’s responsibility to confront our country’s history of perpetuating a race-based caste system that has led to immeasurable harm to Black Americans and weakened our society as a whole.

Courtney: Without a more sophisticated understanding of our history, this “unofficial” caste system, and systemic racism as part of the inheritance bequeathed to generations of Americans, we will never be able to undo the harm of racism. We cannot fix something if we do not know and accept that it is broken.

Lucy: I have a new appreciation for learning our country’s history so that we can all start from a common understanding of the injustice that American society has systematically inflicted upon Black Americans.

Courtney: What I most appreciated about Wilkerson’s talk was her overview of “weathering:” the negative physiological impact that racism has on all of us. She described one example from her book, a Nigerian immigrant’s experience of aging faster than his father who had stayed in Nigeria and was not continuously faced with the stressors of being Black in America. She also explained racism’s physiological consequences for white people, who experience stress and heightened cortisol levels when faced with challenges to the caste’s status quo.

Lucy: Wilkerson explained that caste makes us blind to the common humanity of others. Speaking to health outcomes, including the U.S.’s disproportionately poor response to the COVID-19 pandemic, she explained that the caste system makes one social group subconsciously believe another social group is subordinate and doesn’t deserve help; and this hurts our entire society because we have been programmed to have less of a stake in other people. When someone asked what white people can do to break down caste, Wilkerson responded that they can be willing to do the work to dismantle what Wilkerson described as an infrastructure of division and ranking, learn our country’s history of oppression, and talk with other white people about change.

A valued partner of the Firm’s corporate social responsibility program, Partnership With Children provides full-time social workers in NYC public schools to help students access care and feel anchored in their schools. Their programs consist of individual and small group counseling as well as teacher support. Proskauer partner Andy Bettwy serves as President of the Partnership with Children board of directors.

[View source.]

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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